Learning stenography with Plover

· geekery ·

I mentioned in my previous post that one of the reasons I decided to build my Corne keyboard was to make it easier to learn stenography with Plover. Why would I want to learn stenography? Well, part of an honest answer would be that it seemed interesting, and I enjoy learning new things, but I was also motivated by the idea that I might be able (in time) to substantially increase my typing speed, while typing in a more ergonomic way.

Stenography is a completely different way of writing text than any of the conventional keyboard methods. Traditionally, it tends to be used in court reporting or live captioning, where stenographers are able to transcribe everything that is said in real time. To do this, they use a stenography machine, and must be able to type at more than 225 words per minute. Stenography machines have levers rather than keys (a bit like a typewriter), each of which requires a very light touch to register the stroke. Instead of hitting keys one by one, as you do on a regular keyboard, stenographers hit multiple keys simultaneously — pressing between keys vertically or horizontally — to generate chords. The chords are then translated into whole words, syllables or whole phrases, depending on they system used (or ’theory’). This is what makes stenography (or ‘steno’) so fast: you can produce whole (sometimes long) words with a single stroke, and the software also deals with inserting spaces between words, capitalising words at the start of sentences, and so on. This makes it much easier for stenographers to exceed speeds of 250 words per minute (the world record is 360 WPM), but also to keep up that pace comfortably for hours on end.

This is obviously something that would be potentially useful to anyone who types a lot a keyboard, but the problem — pre-Plover — was that stenography required special (very expensive) machines and the only way you could learn how to do it was to enrol in a stenography course, which is also extremely expensive and has a high drop-out rate. This made it inaccessible to amateurs who have no wish to do either court reporting or live captioning, but just want to be able to type faster, more comfortably. Plover (which is open source), enables you to translate output from an ordinary keyboard into steno strokes. The software runs on your computer, translating output from your keyboard in real time, and also enables you to edit the dictionaries which translate steno strokes into words, so that you can add in words that you use frequently.

You can use Plover with an ordinary QWERTY keyboard. However, unless it has n-key rollover (NKRO) — the ability to register all the key presses when multiple keys are pressed simultaneously — you will have to arpeggiate the keys, which is less than ideal. Also, as I found, if your keycaps are further apart, or if your keys require a bit of force to depress (e.g. 50 or 60 g, which is typical for mechanical keyswitches), it is difficult to make strokes which require several adjacent keys to be pressed. I started learning on my ErgoDox EZ, but have found it much easier with my new Corne keyboard, both because of the closer spacing of the keycaps, and the lighter force needed to activate the keys.

Learning steno is hard, but fun. The process of generating chords feels extremely odd at first, but the satisfaction of seeing whole words pop out when you get it right is delightful. I’m following the excellent suggestions on the Plover wiki for the best way to learn stenography, and my knowledge is gradually increasing. The steno keyboard layout looks downright weird. The left and right hand halves are all consonants, then there are four vowels under the thumbs (A, O, E and U). Some letters are missing entirely (X, J, Y and I, for example), and some are repeated on both halves (S, T, P, R). The basic idea is that words are chorded phonetically by syllables. The starting sounds are represented by the left hand, vowels in the middle, then ending sounds on the right half. Sounds that are missing are generated by combining keys. For example the word ’love’ is HRUF in Plover. The HR keys make the ’l’ sound, the U is a short ‘o’ and the F is a ‘v’ sound.

It takes quite a long time to learn the layout and the sounds represented by the combinations of keys. I am finding the vowel sounds more complicated than the consonants, because in English, the vowel sounds aren’t differentiated by accents or similar markings like they are in other languages, so I think we English speakers don’t think very often about what a long or short ‘o’ is, for example. This, of course, is what makes learning how to pronounce words like ’through’, ’thorough’ and ’thought’ so difficult for people learning English. I’m gradually getting to grips with it though, and it has made it much easier for me to guess chords for new words correctly.

Plover isn’t an entirely phonetic system. There are a lot of dictionary entries which are known as ‘briefs’. These are abbreviations of common words to save time or to make what would be tricky chords easier to hit. For example, you can hit S-B (that’s the S on the left side and the B on the right side) to output the word ‘somebody’. ‘The’ is just the -T key on the right side, while ‘it’ is the T on the left side. These are trickier to learn, but gradually, with practice, they become more ingrained, and that helps you to speed up.

Plover is also aware of orthographic rules in English. You can use the -S, -D and -G keys on the right side (among others) to change the endings of words. So you could chord RAOEUD for ‘ride’ then hit the -G key and the word would automatically change to ‘riding’ (not rideing) because Plover knows the rules for adding the suffix ‘-ing’ to words. There’s similar shortcut for adding ‘-ed’ to words with the -D stroke. Once you are familiar with the strokes for sounds, you don’t have to know how a word is spelled, only how it sounds.

There are all sorts of other delightful things you bump into. While I was learning the chord for the ‘F’ sound, I was playing around with words starting with the sound and randomly wrote ‘flip’ followed by ‘flop’. Plover immediately removed the space it had added, and hyphenated the word into ‘flip-flop’. Similarly, when I typed ‘kit’ (KEUT) followed by ‘cat’ (KAT), it transformed to ‘KitKat’ (mmm… KitKats…). If you type the words in the reverse order (flop flip), it assumes that’s what you meant and doesn’t change them, because there is no valid word ‘flop-flip’ or ‘KatKit’. By the same token, small errors in the keys you press can result in an entirely different word popping out. I kept finding that trying to write ‘help’ (HEP) would result in ‘pelvis’ (PEL) because I was one key over on both my left and right hands!

My current QWERTY typing speed is somewhere between 60 and 70 WPM, but my steno speed is still only around 10 words per minute. My accuracy is slowly creeping up though, and as I mentioned, I’m getting better at guessing the outline (i.e. the chords needed) for words I haven’t encountered yet. I’m practising for a bit of time each day, and I have steno flashcards on my phone so that I can test myself if I have a few minutes when I might otherwise be scrolling idly. My hope is that when I get to more than 30 WPM, I might be able to use steno for actual typing (rather than practice), and that the extra, real-world experience will increase my speed more quickly.

Remember when I started learning a weird keyboard layout, and had to revert to QWERTY because it destroyed my ability to type on a normal keyboard? I did worry that I might experience the same thing with steno. However, so far it has not been a problem. Alternative keyboard layouts only change where each of the characters is on the keyboard, so trying to keep two layouts in your muscle memory seems to be very difficult. In contrast, steno is so different in terms of the actions your fingers make and the output that you generate that it seems (fingers crossed!) not to interfere with QWERTY typing much. If I am trying to type out single letters (particularly when entering the steno outlines above), by brain gets a bit confused and goes to the positions of those letters in the steno layout, possibly because my brain has slipped into ‘steno mode’ to think about the outlines. However, in normal typing, it isn’t a problem. I’ll see how it goes. It’s a really fun experiment anyway, and I’m having fun learning. If it ends up not going anywhere because it’s too difficult or it messes up my ordinary typing, I won’t consider it a waste of time. After all, people do crosswords or sudoku to keep their brains active, but this has the potential to also make me a speed typist!